Teach Me Equals: Uneasy and Beautiful

Teach Me Equals are one of PHILTHY’s rarely explored acts that’s actually from Philadelphia… sort of. Teach Me Equals are comprised of New Jersey native Greg Bortnichak and Florida...

Teach Me Equals are one of PHILTHY’s rarely explored acts that’s actually from Philadelphia… sort of. Teach Me Equals are comprised of New Jersey native Greg Bortnichak and Florida native Erin Murphy, who currently claim Sarasota, FL and Philly to have joint custody of their talents. Teach Me Equals are actually rare in a lot of ways (locale and beyond). They rely almost exclusively on stringed wooden instruments (cello, guitar, violin), but process them through a plethora of postmodern techniques, such as looping and sampling. Teach Me Equals are currently on tour (although do not currently have a local stop) and about to release their debut LP, Knives in the Hope Chest, on September 16th. Their contemporary appropriation (and manipulation) of traditional instrumentation is not unlike the quirkily clever work of Melora Creager… dark, learned, but also quite a bit of fun. I recently got a chance to chat with Greg and Erin, who gave me an Intro to Teach Me Equals.

Izzy Cihak: You’re about to release your debut LP, Knives in the Hope Chest. What were the album’s most significant influences?
Teach Me Equals: For Knives, the two of us underwent a long period of intake — listening obsessively to numerous bands, composers, poets, and instrumentalists, and then promptly shut ourselves off to outside musical influences for the period of writing and recording the album. As always, we listened to plenty of our favorite artists leading up to that lock-down point: Dirty Three, Bob Dylan, Unwound, Kishi Bashi, The Drones, My Bloody Valentine, and many of the bands we played with previously on tour. Furthermore, we delved deeply into film — working between tours running the box office for our local Sarasota Film Festival and sharing ideas about art in diverse mediums with many filmmakers, screen writers, animators, etc. was perhaps the biggest influence on this record and might be responsible for the cinematic quality that many people hear when they listen to it. As for authors, we went through a classic fiction phase — reading mostly short stories from Kafka, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc. Stephen King, Tom Robbins, and Buddy Wakefield (who gave us our namesake) came in and out of our consciousness quite a bit as well during that time. Other than that, it was all non-fiction — books about cryptozoology, parapsychology, American history, and music bios populated our shelves for that entire period.

Izzy: And how did the album’s title come about? I really like it.
Teach Me Equals: Thank you! The title pretty much just fell into our laps one night while having dinner with Erin’s parents. Erin’s mom had purchased a knife set shortly before her and Erin’s dad got married. The knife set had held up well and we were using it at dinner that night, and Erin’s dad remarked something along the lines of “She put knives in her hope chest.” When he said that, the two of us immediately shot each other a look of understanding — we knew we had our title. We had set out to create a work that both balanced and fully addressed the fine line between the uneasiness and even fear that permeates daily living in America with the potential for beauty and transcendence that is somehow always all around us. It is hard to put our finger on the present American experience and then refocus that with a lens that encapsulates greater truths about the human experience as a whole, but if Knives was a successful experiment in that regard, then the reconciliation of those themes plays out (in our eyes at least) in a very visceral, and sometimes abrasive way… We picture actual knives when we think about it still. And for that reason, we feel that there really was no other title that could fit this particular body of work.

Izzy: While this is technically your debut LP, you’ve already toured quite a bit and earned a seemingly pretty loyal fanbase. What have been the highlights of the band, so far?
Teach Me Equals: The present moment is absolutely the highlight of the band so far. There were many great nights, hard nights, shows that laid us and the audience out flat, shows that were bizarre, shows that were painful trainwrecks, shows that were just… funny. We’ve loved every second of it. At the moment, we are holed up in Olympia, Washington working on new material with Vern Rumsey, a musician whom we both deeply respect, admire, and owe a great debt to as musicians -the excitement about this collaboration, as well as our upcoming release and tour is more than enough to have us both waking up before the alarm every morning, simply thrilled to greet the day and all that comes with it.

Izzy: How is it that the two of you actually came together to form the band?
Teach Me Equals: Our genesis story is really pretty plebeian. A lot of people seem to be fixated on our unorthodox choice of instrumentation, but essentially everything was a matter of working with what we had. The two of us met while Greg was touring the country on the last Sparta Philharmonic release, and Erin promoted a last minute show for Sparta in Sarasota. After the show, we both connected over the finer points of living as DIY musicians — booking, travelling… everything down to how we assembled our hand-packaged CD-Rs. We knew it from that get-go that we would be compatible in a serious artistic venture, and didn’t waste any time getting to work. Greg moved to Sarasota to work on the project full time a handful of months after initially meeting, and we just went from there. The process of arriving at our sound was both very cerebral and very haphazard — we discussed where we wanted to go sonically and just experimented in practice and the through the recording process until we arrived at something that approached what we were envisioning for this record all along.

Izzy: And how would you characterize your process of writing and recording together?
Teach Me Equals: We are definitely huge proponents of editing, and re-editing, and editing again… just going back and forth with both the words and the music until a song and a body of songs are precisely what they should be. There is nothing that we do that isn’t completely collaborative. One of us may come up with a poem or a riff, but we don’t call it finished until the other has had a chance to work and re-work the idea until everything fits together as cohesively as we can possibly make it. We do love jamming together, and we woodshed as much as possible, but more often than not, we will only get small kernels from those jams that we then need to rigorously re-focus until we can call it a Teach Me Equals song.

Izzy: You’re currently on tour and have a number of dates scheduled throughout the rest of the year. What can fans expect of the live experience?
Teach Me Equals: A lot of feedback. Haha — no, we love playing live and are currently playing almost all of Knives on tour. The songs are a bit different live, as we have to cover large portions of the arrangements with live-looping, which is very challenging. People often say that we are loud, intense, dark, energetic… All good things that we take as huge compliments.

Izzy: And have you noticed any patterns in the kind of people who most like or “best get” your music?
Teach Me Equals: To a certain extent, other artists of any medium seem to gravitate to our music most of all, but there really isn’t any set demographic or patterns we notice with our audiences. Most people tend to either love it or hate it. If they can stand the volume, they usually end up enjoying the show.

Izzy: What do you have planned for the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015? What are you most excited about? Any chance of a Philly date?
Teach Me Equals: Absolutely! We are actively booking shows in and around Philly for the end of October and December 2014. We plan to be on the road in support of this record well into 2015. After that, there is a talk of a split with Vern Rumsey’s RedRumsey and accompanying tours throughout the US and Canada, and hopefully Europe and South America as well.

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.